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Aroma Science

Origin & Botany of Rose Oils

No one knows exactly where or when the rose originated, though fossil records indicate that some species of rose have existed on the planet for at least 40 million years (European Medicines Agency [EMA], source, 2013). The oldest rose fossils are often described as being from the Paleocene period, but it is nearly impossible to correlate rose fossils to present day species because of the rose bush’s long and complex history of genetic diversification and crossbreeding Many of these early rose fossils were identified as Rosa hilliae (Widrlechner, “History and Utilization of Rosa Damascena, 1981). Evidence of plants from the family Rosaceae, the rose bush’s botanical family, dating to 32 million years ago has also been discovered in Oregon and Colorado, revealing this flower’s enduring ancestry (Santa Barbara Rose Society, source, 2014).

Today several species of rose grow wild throughout Western and Eastern Europe and East Asia, with a center of diversity in Central Asia. Due to centuries of breeding and cultivation, the exact original botanical relations between wild rose species are unclear (Gernot Katzer, source, 2003).

The earliest known written reference to roses growing in a garden occurred around 3,000 years ago in a Sumerian record found in Ur, an ancient city of Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq (Santa Barbara Rose Society, source, 2014). The rose is also important in early Greek mythology, which asserts that the rose came from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, whose birth created sea foam that subsequently turned into white roses, signifying purity and innocence (International Herb Association, source, 2014).

The rose is a perennial shrub or vine belonging to the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae, which also includes apples, pears, and raspberries. The rose bush comes in a variety of forms, from miniature roses to climbing roses, and produces flowers in a wide range of colors which mainly bloom in early summer and fall. Because there are so many different species of roses, there are three categories to aid in the organization of them:

Old roses (old garden roses) are species of rose introduced to the world of rose cultivation prior to 1867. A true old rose precedes the year 1867 when La France, the first hybrid tea rose, was introduced (Heirloom Roses, source, 2013). There are many old rose species—including Rosa gallica, Rosa damascena and Rosa alba—and their hardiness and native habitats vary. Most of the roses which produce rose essential oil and other rose extracts are in this group. These roses produce a considerably more rich fragrance than modern hybrid roses due to less cross-breeding.

Modern hybrid roses are species of roses introduced after 1867. These roses are sturdy, long-blooming, extremely hardy and disease-resistant, and bred for color, shape, size, and fragrance, though they often possess a weaker fragrance than old garden roses.

Species, or wild, roses are those that have been growing wild for many thousands of years. These wild roses have adapted to modern gardens and usually bloom in the spring. Rosa canina, the dog rose, is a wild rose that grows throughout Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia (Farmer’s Almanac, source, 2014).

Most European species originate at least partly from Rosa gallica, which grows wild in the Caucasus Mountains. Almost all roses grown in Europe, Asia, and North Africa—from antiquity to the 18th century—either belong to Rosa gallica or are gallica-derived varieties. The musk rose (Rosa moschata) and the Holy rose of Abessinia (Rosa richardii) are possible exceptions to this theory (Gernot Katzers, source, 2014). Rosa gallica was first recorded in the 13th century when it was the foundation of a large industry near the city of Provence, France. Apothecaries and others used this rose in jellies, powders, and oils, as many believed it could cure a multitude of illnesses (EMA, source, 2013). Rosa gallica has five-petaled blossoms which range in color from light to dark crimson and bloom in tight petal formations (Royal Horticulture Society [RHS], source, 2014).

Species of Rosa Used for Essential Oil

Although there are many other important rose species, five species within the genus Rosa are most often used to produce rose essential oil, rose absolutes, and other rose extracts. These species are Rosa damascena (damask rose), Rosa centifolia (cabbage rose), Rosa rugosa (beach rose), Rosa bourboniana (bourbon roses), and Rosa alba (the white cottage rose).

Rosa damascena, known as the damask rose, is considered an important type of old rose for its prominent place in the pedigree of many other species. It is thought to have been cultivated from a few other species—namely, R. gallica, R. canina, R. moschata, and R. fedtschenkoana—although further studies are needed to confirm this hybridization (International Herb Association, source, 2014; (Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils. London: Macmillan). While it is unlikely this species was originally found in the wild state, it can now be found growing outside plantations in many areas (Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils. London: Macmillan).

The damask rose is a deciduous shrub which can grow up to around 2.5 meters (7 feet) tall, and its stems are covered with stout, curved prickles and bristles. The leaves are pinnate, with five (rarely seven) leaflets. It possesses looser petal formations than the Rosa gallica, and is also known to have a stronger, tangier fragrance (Heirloom Roses, source, 2013). Damask roses are renowned for their fine fragrance, and their flowers are the most common species of rose commercially cultivated and harvested for rose essential oil. The perfume industry often refers to this rose as the Damascus rose.

Many theories suggest that the damask rose originated in the Shiraz region of Iran, once the ancient kingdom of Persia. Rose water has been part of Iranian culture since ancient times, and several historical documents describe the importance of this product in trade and as a commodity in the payment of war ransoms (Biolandes, source, 2014).

The botanical name damascena refers to Damascus, the present day capital of Syria; crusaders allegedly brought the damask rose to Europe from this city during the crusades. Crusader Robert de Brie is also often credited with bringing this rose from Persia to Europe at some point between 1254 and 1276. Other accounts explain that the introduction of the damask rose to Western Europe occurred when the Romans brought the rose to England, and a third account says that Henry VIII’s physician gave him a damask rose as a present, around 1540.

The damask rose has two major variations: summer damask (R. x damascena nothovar. damascena) and autumn damask (R. x damascena nothovar. Semperflorens). Summer damask possesses a shorter flowering season, blooming only during the summer, while autumn damask has a longer flowering season, with their blooms extending into autumn. Both varieties produce blossoms varying in color from light pink to dark pink.

The rose species Rosa centifolia, also known as the cabbage rose or Rose de Mai, is also an old rose which produces smaller quantities of essential oil than its close cousin, Rosa damascena (Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils. London: Macmillan). Rosa centifolia was first developed by Dutch nurserymen in the late 16th century, and is thought to be a hybrid between Rosa gallica, Rosa canina, Rosa mochata, Rosa damascena (Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety. New York, NY: Elsevier) In John Gerard’s Herball (London 1597), it is also described as ‘The Great Holland Rose’ and ‘The Province Rose’ (from Provence, France, where it was extensively grown). Additionally, 17thcentury English painters were fond of including Rosa centifolia in their portraits as symbols of the beauty of their female subjects (Historic Roses Group, source, 2009).

In the 16th century, the first cultivators of this species thought that it possessed over one hundred petals, and this idea led to its botanical name centifolia (Historic Roses Group, source, 2009). Rosa centifolia can grow to 1.5-2 meters (4-6.5 feet) in height. Its flowers are usually pink, with many overlapping petals forming around, cabbage-like shape (Plants for a Future, source, 2012.) Currently, it is grown extensively in the Grasse region of southern France, and in nearby Morocco (Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils. London: Macmillan).

Rosa rugosa, also known as the beach rose, rugosa rose, or Japanese rose, is native to Japan, China, and Korea. This species of rose was not introduced to Europe and North America until the late 18th century; the first records of the species introduced from Japan to Europe are from 1796, and only after 1845 did the species become more abundant in the western world (Nobanis, source).

Rosa rugosa grows as a small sprouting shrub in dense thickets. The leaves are smooth and dark green and the flowers are large (8-10 cm across), ranging from white to dark pink (Nobanis, source).

This rose species usually grows on sandy or gravely beaches as well as in dune grassland and dune forest. On rocky shores, smaller stands or single shrubs of this species are often found just above the upper reach of stormy winter tides. This particular species of rose is especially hardy and thus can be found in a wide variety of habitats ((Nobanis, source).

Rosa alba, also known as alba (white) rose or as the “White Rose of York,” is thought to be one of the oldest cultivated species. Pliny, who lived from 23-79 A.D., mentioned white roses in his Natural History, and botanists believe these roses may have been Rosa alba. This species of rose became famous during the 15th century as the emblem of the English House of York during the Wars of the Roses. Rosa alba is believed to have originated in the Caucasus and traveled west by way of Greece and Rome (Herbs2000, source, 2014).

Rosa alba is most likely derived from Rosa gallica, Rosa canina (the dog rose), and Rosa damascena. Rosa alba is a very hardy species and can thrive under difficult conditions, including in shade (Heirloom Roses, source, 2013). While the white rose contains much less volatile oil and is of a lower quality than its counterparts, cultivators continue to grow the plant, using the bush as a protective barrier around less tolerant varieties of roses to protect them and mark the edges of their fields (Guenther, E. (1952) The Essential Oils. London: Macmillan). They grow to approximately 1.5-2.5 meters (5-8 feet) shrub with very fragrant, semi-double white flowers (RHS, source, 2014).

Rosa bourboniana, known as the Bourbon Rose and as Rose Edward, was first discovered in 1817 on the French Ile de Bourbon when a hybrid seedling from Rosa damascena and an old China rose believed to be Rosa chinensis (known as Old Blush) sprouted up between the rows. Bourbon Roses produce large, full blooms that are white, pink, red, or deep bluish-purple and possess a rich fragrance. These roses were very popular in Victorian England (Heirloom Roses, source, 2013).

There is a great deal of disagreement over exactly how many species of rose exist. Botanists estimate that there are over 200 diverse species, with thousands of hybrid species. Below is a list of 105 confirmed rose species and some well-known subspecies and varieties:

Rosa abyssinica R. Br. ex Lindl.

Rosa acicularis Lindl. – rickly rose

subspecies Rosa acicularis Lindl. ss. acicularis – rickly rose

variety Rosa acicularis Lindl. ss. acicularis var. nionensis (Cré.) Koehne

subspecies Rosa acicularis Lindl. ss. sayi (Schwein.) W.H. Lewis – rickly rose

Rosa agrestis Savi – fieldbriar

Rosa x alba L. (ro s.) – white rose of York

Rosa albertii Regel

Rosa x anemonoides Rehder (ro s.) [excluded]

Rosa arkansana orter – rairie rose

variety Rosa arkansana orter var. arkansana – rairie rose

variety Rosa arkansana orter var. suffulta (Greene) Cockerell – rairie rose

Rosa arvensis Huds. – field rose

Rosa beggeriana Schrenk

Rosa bella Rehder & E.H. Wilson

Rosa blanda Aiton – smooth rose

variety Rosa blanda Aiton var. blanda – smooth rose

variety Rosa blanda Aiton var. glabra Cré. – smooth rose

variety Rosa blanda Aiton var. hisida Farw. – hisid rose

Rosa x bourboniana N.H.F. Des. (ro s.) – Bourbon rose

Rosa bracteata J.C. Wendl. – Macartney rose

Rosa bridgesii Cré. – pygmy rose

Rosa brunonii Lindl. – Himalayan musk rose

Rosa californica Cham. & Schltdl. – California wildrose

Rosa canina L. – dog rose

Rosa carolina L. – Carolina rose

variety Rosa carolina L. var. carolina – Carolina rose

variety Rosa carolina L. var. setigera Cré. – Carolina rose

Rosa caudata Baker

Rosa centifolia L. – cabbage rose

Rosa chinensis Jacq. – Chinese rose

Rosa cinnamomea L. – cinnamon rose

Rosa ×damascena Mill. (ro s.) – damask rose

variety: R. x damascena nothovar. damascena)

variety: Autumn Damasks (R. x damascena nothovar. Semperflorens).

Rosa davidii Cré.

Rosa davurica all. – Amur rose

Rosa x dulcissima Lunell (ro s.)

Rosa dumalis Bechst.

Rosa x dumetorum Thuill. – corymb rose

Rosa x duontii Desegl.

Rosa ecae Aitch.

Rosa fedtschenkoana Regel

Rosa ferruiginea Vill. – redleaf rose

Rosa foetida Herrm. – Austrian-brier

Rosa foliolosa Nutt. ex Torr. & A. Gray – white rairie rose

Rosa forrestiana Boulenger

Rosa gallica L. – French rose

Rosa giraldii Cré.

Rosa gymnocara Nutt. – dwarf rose

variety Rosa gymnocara Nutt. var. gymnocara – dwarf rose

variety Rosa gymnocara Nutt. var. serentina Ertter & W.H.Lewis – Gasquet rose

Rosa x harisonii Rivers – hybrid rose

Rosa helenae Rehder & E.H. Wilson

Rosa hemsleyana Tackh.

Rosa x housei Erlanson (ro s.) – hybrid rose

Rosa indica L. – cyme rose

Rosa x iwara Siebold ex Regel

Rosa jundzillii Besser

Rosa x kamtchatica Vent.

Rosa kokanica Regel ex Juz.

Rosa laevigata Michx. – Cherokee rose

Rosa laxa Retz.

Rosa majalis J. Herrm. – double cinnamon rose

Rosa manca Greene – Mancos rose

Rosa maracandica Bunge

Rosa marretii H. Lév.

Rosa maximowicziana Regel

Rosa micrantha Borrer ex Sm. – smallflower sweetbrier

Rosa minutifolia Engelm. – Baja rose

Rosa missouriensis hort. ex Steud. [excluded]

Rosa mollis Sm.

Rosa montana Chaix ex Vill.

Rosa moschata J. Herrm. – musk rose

Rosa moyesii Hemsl. & E.H. Wilson

Rosa multibracteata Hemsl. & E.H. Wilson

Rosa multiflora Thunb. – multiflora rose

Rosa myriadenia Greene, nom. inq. – glandular rose

Rosa nitida Willd. – shining rose

Rosa nitidula Besser

Rosa nutkana C. resl – Nootka rose

variety Rosa nutkana C. resl var. hisida Fernald – bristly Nootka rose

variety Rosa nutkana C. resl var. muriculata (Greene) G.N. Jones – Nootka rose

variety Rosa nutkana C. resl var. nutkana – Nootka rose

variety Rosa nutkana C. resl var. setosa G.N. Jones – Nootka rose

Rosa obtusiuscula Rydb., nom. inq. – Aalachian Valley rose

Rosa ×odorata (Andrews) Sweet (ro s.) – tea rose

Rosa ×alustriformis Rydb. (ro s.) – hybrid rose

Rosa alustris Marshall – swam rose

Rosa endulina L. – aline rose

Rosa inetorum A. Heller, nom. inq. – ine rose

Rosa isocara A. Gray – cluster rose

subspecies Rosa isocara A. Gray ssp. ahartii Ertter & W.H. Lewis – Ahart’s cluster rose

subspecies Rosa isocara A. Gray ssp. isocara – cluster rose

Rosa ouzinii Tratt.

Rosa rattii Hemsl.

Rosa ulverulenta M. Bieb.

Rosa x rehderiana Blackb. – olyantha rose

Rosa roxburghii Tratt. – chestnut rose

variety Rosa roxburghii Tratt. var. hirtula (Regel) Rehder & E.H. Wilson

Rosa rubiginosa L. – sweetbriar rose

Rosa x rudiuscula Greene (ro s.) – hybrid rose

Rosa rugosa Thunb. – rugosa rose

Rosa semervirens L. – evergreen rose

Rosa sericea Lindl.

subspecies Rosa sericea Lindl. ssp. omeiensis (Rolfe) A.V. Roberts

Rosa setigera Michx. – climbing rose

variety Rosa setigera Michx. var. setigera – climbing rose

variety Rosa setigera Michx. var. tomentosa Torr. & A. Gray – climbing rose

Rosa setioda Hemsl. & E.H. Wilson

Rosa sherardii Davies – Sherard’s downy rose

Rosa sicula Tratt. – Mediterranean rose

Rosa sinowilsonii Hemsl.

Rosa soulieana Cré.

Rosa sinosissima L. – Scotch rose

Rosa sithamea S. Watson – ground rose

variety Rosa sithamea S. Watson var. sonomensis (Greene) Jes. – Sonoma ground rose

variety Rosa sithamea S. Watson var. sithamea – ground rose

Rosa stellata Woot. – desert rose

subspecies Rosa stellata Woot. ssp. abyssa A. hillis – desert rose

subspecies Rosa stellata Woot. ssp. mirifica (Greene) W.H. Lewis – desert rose

variety Rosa stellata Woot. ssp. mirifica (Greene) W.H. Lewis var. erlansoniae W.H. Lewis – desert rose

variety Rosa stellata Woot. ssp. mirifica (Greene) W.H. Lewis var. mirifica (Greene) Cockerell – desert rose

subspecies Rosa stellata Woot. ssp. stellata – desert rose

Rosa sweginzowii Koehne – Sweginzow’s rose

Rosa tomentosa Sm. – whitewoolly rose

Rosa tuschetica Boiss.

Rosa villosa L. – ale rose

Rosa virginiana Mill. – Virginia rose

variety Rosa virginiana Mill. var. lamrohylla (Rydb.) Fernald – Virginia rose

variety Rosa virginiana Mill. var. virginiana – Virginia rose

Rosa x waitziana Tratt.

Rosa webbiana Wall. ex Royle

Rosa wichuraiana Cré. – memorial rose

Rosa willmottiae Hemsl. – Willmott’s rose

Rosa woodsii Lindl. – Woods’ rose

variety Rosa woodsii Lindl. var. glabrata (arish) Cole – Woods’ rose

variety Rosa woodsii Lindl. var. gratissima (Greene) Cole – Tehachai rose

variety Rosa woodsii Lindl. var. ultramontana (S. Watson) Jes. – Woods’ rose

variety Rosa woodsii Lindl. var. woodsii – Woods’ rose

Rosa xanthina Lindl. – yellow rose

Rosa yainacensis Greene – Cascade rose

(United States Dept. of Agriculture [USDA], source)